Heaven on earth

Andy Hawes on the mourning after

 

With a month’s hindsight it is very hard to recreate the sense of shock and outrage that coursed through the national consciousness as the news of the Tsunami broke upon homes and communities in a cosy holiday mood. Within a few days the whole world was caught up in a Dutch auction of generosity and no shop or street was empty of a jangling tin or bucket. For its intensity and all embracing fervour there has never been the like.

There were some entirely new elements in the Tsunami response. The first was the question repeated in every form of media ‘where was God in all this?’ I heard the question asked on the ‘Today Programme’ three mornings in succession and one ‘phone in’ on Radio 5. Various religious leaders were asked to respond – very few with much confidence. A Hindu said –’believing in the reincarnation we look at the experience of death as insignificant in the context of an unstable creation.’ A Muslim professor answered –’It is the will of Allah.’ I was amazed that set in the context of the Christmas season I heard no clear explanation of the Christian view of Creation, Redemption and New Creation. I may be wrong but it seemed to me that the Christian voice baulked at the tidal wave of confused anger and grief.

Most parish clergy will witness to the increasing tendency of families to have no concepts, language or ritual to deal with death – particularly sudden or accidental death. We live in a society bereft of a common language that copes with mortality and the possibility of immortality. This was so dramatically seen at the time of Princess Diana’s death where the main vocabulary was floral and it was left to Sir Elton John to rewrite a pop song about Marilyn Monroe to sum up a bereaved nation’s feeling.

The Tsunami was so traumatic to Western Culture because it shattered its essential image of heaven. The palm fringed beach of a tropical island paradise has become an icon of heaven. Ironically the Sunday before Christmas a parishioner had given me a photograph; ‘Here you are Vicar, put this in the vestry.’ It was a photograph of a tropical beach bar, above it was a huge sign ‘Heaven.’ It became a visual aid for the first sermon of 2005.

The blue of heaven is not Marian it has become the blue of the Indian Ocean. The communion of saints is not imagined as gloriously robed in light but gorgeously bronzed and oiled. Heaven is not the reward for those who know their need of God, it is the reward of those with sufficient funds to jet to the other side of the world. For a society whose hopes rest on ‘personal financial prosperity’ and on material well- being the shock waves of the Tsunami touched the very core of its values. What is the point in life if what is beautiful and gorgeous and expensive can be swept way without warning? Where is God in all this? No where was this so keenly felt as in Sweden – the model welfare secular state without even the corporate memory of war to draw on.

It may have been that the empty news rooms of the Christmas Holidays emphasised the disaster. (Another Diana parallel is that her death occurred during the August bank Holiday). The coverage was wall to wall for a week. There was no escape from the challenge and question of this earth shattering event. Reason seemed to go out the window. The Iran earthquake of a year before had a fraction of the coverage. The death toll of 160000 is mind boggling but is not equal to the number of African children who die from hunger and disease in a week. I made myself unpopular by meekly suggesting that there was a sickening element of self indulgence in all this. I did pose the question in church ‘What would have happened if Darfur was a holiday resort?’ For a psychological effect so deeply felt the means of catharsis had to be extreme.

The climax ( or nadir) of society in shock was the European Three Minutes Silence. It was a great relief to me to find out that I wasn’t the only person who found this an act of grief too far. The trumping of the Remembrance of the War Dead by a deliberate one minute spoke volumes. It said simply ‘our grief is worse than yours’ but belied a more sobering truth -’we can’t cope with death like you did.’ I do not wish to be insensitive and I am definitely not unsympathetic, but I am wondering aloud ‘what does all this mean?’ It means that Christians must provide a clear and intelligent answer to the question ‘Where is God in all this?’

First, we must have a clear understanding of God’s relationship to creation. God has made all things out of nothing. His creation was good but we believe that Creation has fallen away from its Divine purpose. Secondly, we believe that the fall and corruption of the created order was precipitated by humanity. Made in the image and likeness of God humanity has the potential to manage and shape creation, in partnership with God, to fulfil its potential as the dwelling place of God and Humanity in eternal harmony. This humanity has failed to do.

In the case of the Tsunami, and the grinding of unstable tectonic plates which caused it, it may seem bizarre to blame humanity but some interesting facts have emerged which make this thesis credible. The Pacific Ocean (ringed by first world economies) has a warning system – the same system would have provided an average warning time of three hours to the coasts hit by the Tsunami. The ‘stone age’ islanders of Indonesia survived because they were aware of the activity of the created order around them, recognised the alarm and took action. Creation is a dangerous enterprise and danger cannot be written out of it completely, yet where there is generosity and communal responsibility in the place of exploitation and self -centredness creation becomes friendlier.

Thirdly, we believe in the Incarnation in Jesus Christ of the Eternal Word of God. We believe that through Him all things were made and that by His death and resurrection a New Creation has begun of which He is the first fruits. Christians recognise the pain, disease and death at work in creation and believe that God in Christ is at work reconciling all things to Himself. We believe that His Church is the agent of this. We believe that it is by the powerful waters of baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus that the church grows and is sustained. Within the life of His Body the truth is celebrated that ‘nothing in creation shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

 

Fr Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

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